Sunday School in the 21st century

August 11, 2017

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In Spring 2017, the Ohef Sholom Temple board of directors unanimously approved a proposal to welcome independent households to one year of enrollment in the Temple’s Reform Jewish Sunday morning classes. An “independent household” is a family that expresses its Jewish identity without synagogue membership.

Open enrollment addresses two seemingly contradictory features of the contemporary American Jewish family— features documented in a study on American Jewish identity. In 2013, the Pew Research Center revealed that the majority of American Jews value ancestral, cultural, and ethical dimensions of Judaism; and that the majority of American Jews are not synagogue members, and so rely on non-synagogue means to educate their young children to live a culturally rich and ethical life. Maybe these two facts co-exist because synagogue Sunday schools are perceived as (or actually are) out of touch with American Jewry.

Sunday learning in the 21st century demands a different approach from the synagogue Sunday schools of previous generations. American religious education should prepare children for a new socio-economic, political, and spiritual landscape.

In the 20th century, Jewish Sunday School curricula addressed a world filled with first- and second-generation Jewish immigrant families, American Jewish neighborhoods, and a taboo against interfaith marriage. Today’s world is dramatically different. Interfaith families comprise close to 50% of Sunday Reform Jewish learning communities. Our Jewish children’s intimate exposure to other religions challenges the concept of Jews as the chosen people. In cities around the country, Jewish households are dispersed across 40-mile regions, making transportation to a central meeting place a major hassle.

Most of our children’s grandparents grew up in American culture, and have no nostalgia for the customs, foods, and memories of the European old country. In the case of Israel, still a controversial homeland to the Jews, the 69-year-old nation is a high-tech metropolitan reality, rather than a dusty, distant agricultural hope. The Holocaust is history, its horrors three generations removed. And while anti-Semitism is accessible on-line, and violently enacted in other countries, it is not presently the unifying enemy of the American Jew.

When it comes to spirituality and prayer, smart phones attached to our cars, wrists, glasses, and pockets steal away our habits of quiet reflection, contemplation, and prayer.

Despite these noteworthy generational changes, two things have not changed in American Jewish education. Learning is Torah-based, and teacher driven. Synagogues that recognize these things will remain viable centers for relevant Jewish learning in the 21st century.

At Ohef Sholom Temple, Sunday learning is Jewish because the lesson plans grow from core teachings of Judaism that originate in Torah. These include Jewish holiday celebrations, Hebrew language and culture as an alternative lens through which we understand our place in the world, love for an international Jewish homeland that has its own struggles with democratic principles, and a moral compass for compassion, righteous living, a just society, and personal responsibility for making the world a better place.

The wisdom of Torah is best revealed in a group setting, a learning community, dedicated to interpreting the ancient words of our faith, from a variety of perspectives, including the perspective of each individual learner. In Ohef Sholom’s Sunday learning community, the learner is like a lamp to be lit, rather than a vessel to be filled.

The Torah says in the daily V’ahavta prayer, ‘You shall love The Eternal your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.’ (Deut. 6:5) Sunday learning at Ohef Sholom engages learners’ hearts, minds, and souls with a philosophy of Learning by Doing. The vehicles of engagement are music, cooking, yoga, worship, Hebrew through movement, visual artistic expression, community service projects, holiday celebrations, family education, and a hand-written Hebrew scroll whose spoken and written words have survived the test of time for more than 3,500 years.

Assembling Jews from a 20-mile Hampton Roads radius into a house of learning three hours a week teaches Jewish children the enduring understanding that they really are part of a vibrant and ancient community of faith whose roots extend well beyond their family.

Sunday learning is only as effective as its teachers. Three generations ago, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel proclaimed to a convention of American Jewish educators, “What we need more than anything else is not text-books but text people.” This is true now more than ever. Texts—the biblical ones and the iPhone ones—are available with a flick of the wrist. Synagogue teachers are the child’s non-parental adults who respect individual learning differences and show the child that s/he belongs to a faithbased community and a world beyond the nuclear family. At Ohef Sholom Temple, Sunday learning is about faith in a large, diverse community, ancient wisdom, and responsibility to make our world better.

No longer are Jewish teachers primarily bearded patriarchs. Nor are they primarily middle-aged, stay-at-home, volunteer moms. At Ohef Sholom Sunday learning, the 2017–18 faculty consists of 22 adults, 81% of whom are women, 41% of whom live in an interfaith family where the children are raised Jewish, and no one has a beard. Moreover, the faculty works in other jobs full-time in the secular world, including 15 as full-time professional educators. OST faculty members are also engaged in their own family lives as newlyweds, parents, and grandparents.

In addition, 24 teens, many of whom are college-bound leaders in their Monday-through-Friday schools, work as classroom madrichim, or “guides.” They tutor, socialize, instruct, and energize every lesson. They too are role models.

At Ohef Sholom Temple Sunday learning, questions are just as important as answers. Especially the two-year-old’s favorite question, “Why?” Children are naturally spiritual because they have a sense of wonder. The Hebrew word for “why” is “Lahma.” Every Sunday classroom at Ohef Sholom has a stuffed llama to remind learners of the Hebrew connection between questions and lifelong learning. Every Sunday classroom has a full-length mirror to remind learners that we are each created in the image of God, B’Tzelem Elohim, as it is written in the Book of Genesis, in the ancient creation story in Torah.

If you are a Jew in an independent household, what’s holding you back from engaging your family in a 21st century Jewish Sunday School?

- Christopher E. Kraus, JD, MTS, director of Family Learning, Ohef Sholom Temple

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